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Countdown is a 1968 film directed by Robert Altman, based on the novel The Pilgrim Project by Hank Searls.

Synopsis

Set during the space race between the United Statesmarker and the Soviet Unionmarker, the two nations are in a tight race to be the first to land men on the moon.

Within the United States effort there is another competition: whether the first American on the moon will be a former military officer or a civilian. Chiz (Duvall) doubts that Lee Stegler (Caan) can do the job, but grudgingly agrees to push Lee's training along.

NASAmarker puts a habitat shelter onto the moon, with a bright light shining from it. Lee is to fly a modified Gemini space capsule, set up to support a single astronaut instead of two, to the moon, where he will spot the shelter from orbit, then activate an automated landing program. He will make his way across the lunar surface, enter the shelter and wait there for Apollo to land, then return to Earth with Apollo. If there'll be a further delay sending Apollo, another shelter will be sent for Lee to move to. In either case, it means a long, lonely stay, isolated from the rest of humanity by a distance greater than nine times the circumference of the Earth; Earth will be virtually motionless in the sky, and his only "light" during each two-week period of lunar night.

The Russians launch a manned landing mission, and Lee is rushed to the launch pad. As his craft nears the moon, engine problems cause a battery drain, affecting his radio, and he is very reluctant to shut off systems and sleep his way to the moon. Once there, through watering eyes, he is having difficulty spotting the habitat, and is to allow free-return trajectory if he can't positively spot it. He thinks he sees it and engages the landing sequence. Chiz has misgivings.

Lee's capsule lands safely, but he is unable to communicate with Earth because a tall rock outcrop is between him and Earth in the moon's sky. He disembarks and begins to cross the moon's surface, looking for the shelter. NASA will know he's made it when he enters and activates it, and Lee has approximately two hours.

Lee finds the Soviet spacecraft, half-buried in the surface, its cosmonauts dead, one with an open visor. He takes time to honor his fellow space travelers, burying them and laying out the flags of both their countries, then continues his trek in search of the shelter. With time running low, he takes out a rubber mouse his son Stevie lent him, and lets it twirl on its string for a random choice of which way to walk, then sets off in that direction.

He has less than four minutes before his oxygen pressure starts dropping. He is about to throw in the towel when a red light flashes across his visor and the rocks. He turns to look and finally sees the shelter, just as a NASA official tells the press that the two hours is nearly expired and the shelter has not yet been activated. As the closing credits roll, Lee makes his way toward the shelter that will be his home for an unknown length of time.

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